Monday, June 1, 2020


A song by Blind Alfred Reed (1880 - 1956) and performed by Willie Watson raises questions with no easy answers. Are we our brother's keeper? And is the concern for our brothers and sisters (lions and lambs? Trees? That rock you stubbed your toe on?) relative or absolute? Do we help this one, but not that one? Her but not him? Us but not them? Eeeny meeny miny moe.

Maestro, cue up the song. We'll have a listen. See what we think.

Watson, 'Always Lift Him Up'
(click photo to listen)

We live in interesting times. Old folks, goes one suggestion, have become expendable. The president of the united states (lower case intentional: he could use the humility) is at best an ignorant thug. A pestilence lives next door.

A poet's task is to reflect in metered words and phrases the tenor of the times. William Butler Yeats wrote "The Second Coming" in 1919. The first world war had just ended. The so-called Spanish flu had killed more than 20,000,000 people. Grim times.

Yeats was a notorious rewriter. The version of his poem below is from 1921 as it appeared in the Dial Magazine. What follows Yeats' poem is a bit of annotation. The poem has suffered pillaging for decades, from a Joan Didion essay to an obscure rock band's title song. A Paris Review article suggests the words and phrases of this poem are the most used and abused --- few, apparently, understand Yeats' meaning and many disregard his context --- in the English language.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Spiritus Mundi translates as the spirit of the world. The phrase, according to most philosophies, is used to mean that all living things on the planet are interconnected. Intrinsically. Innately. Plato fostered this notion, and it was an important component of most Neoplatonic philosophies both East and West. John Donne's poem, 'No Man Is an Island' (published 1624), uses this idea as its theme.

Some think even the broad scope of Spiritus Mundi is short sighted. Is inorganic matter without spirit? And what of other celestial bodies? What of the Universe itself? A long walk off a short pier, this business. Enough, perhaps, to simply consider the beast who slouches next door. What of him? Or her? Or them?

In “The Waste Land”, published in 1922, T.S. Eliot has a poem that captures the same atmosphere of impending doom as the Yeats' work. His opening stanza is entitled 'The Burial Of The Dead'. Eliot, however, chose to end on a somewhat enigmatic, yet, essentially positive note. The end of stanza 5:

These fragments I have shored against the ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's man againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih

The meaning of the Sanskrit 'da' words can be rendered as charity, empathy, self-control. The meaning of shantih is peace beyond understanding, and is the usual conclusion of the Indian philosophical Upanishads. Eliot has said that he used difficult allusions and Sanskrit incantations to make things difficult for his readers. If a line is hard to understand, if meaning must be worked for, then the thought will be better appreciated. Or so thought Eliot.

Intellectual hurdles or no, is our dilemma resolved, our questions answered? Perhaps. Maybe. Charity, empathy and self-control are fine virtues difficult to obtain. But what they offer one's brothers and sisters and dogs and cats is not always what is wanted or needed. Alas, alack. And peace beyond understanding? That 'beyond understanding' does put the wrench in the works. That which is beyond understanding is also beyond words and language. Doesn't leave much. Inanity perhaps. How whimsical.

So: Our brother's keeper? The ceremony of innocence is some long time dead and drowned. “We are all murders and prostitutes.” Which is to say that folks living in the proverbial glass house shouldn't cast aspersions. Or, conversely, lifting others, lifts yourself.

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih

Plato, in Timaeus, wrote:

Therefore, we may consequently state that: this world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence ... a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related.

R. D. Laing, from his book The Politics of Experience, 1967.